For this issue of INNATE’s Readings in Nonviolence there was no other non-violent campaign that seemed more relevant than the one that is taking place in connection to Burma, both what is happening inside and outside the country.
For this section what seemed crucial was to refer to the ethical and strategic aspects that non-violence offers us in a world that resorts to spiralling violence to stop violence. And it never stops nor does it look into the causes of the violence.
This brief piece does not pretend at being a narrative, an academic piece or a call for action. It wishes to point out, highlight and make us reflect on core aspects that make non-violence an appropriate and possible option to confront/respond/act/challenge violence at all times of history. Most of them have been said by others in recent articles, news or websites. I will just cite them and give the corresponding reference.
If you go to our INNATE’s website you will find that our page opens everyday by saying like today, October 3rd 2007
Counting the Days, “today Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma has been 4359 days in detention”.
Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 as a central figure in the pro-democracy struggle of her country. She has inspired people in her country and around the world not only by her persistence but when saying things that help us keep going. Just to name a couple:
"The only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear."
“Please use your liberty to promote ours”
PanKaj Mishra, on page 32 of The Guardian Monday October 1st says:
“ Buddhism and its values have inspired a tradition of non-violent protest more powerful than secularist understands “. He goes on saying: “In Tibet and Burma, where a modern, militarised state tyrannises a largely pre-modern and unorganised population, monasteries have been exalted as alternative centres of moral and political authority, and monks and nuns have come to spearhead resistance to unrighteous regimes”.
“It helps that Buddhist political methods aim, relatively modestly, at dialogue and moral conversion rather that revolution”.
PanKaj Mishra ends his piece by saying: “No doubt devotees of science and rationality will continue to call for a religion-free politics. But what the Burmese Demonstrators prove is that, as Gandhi said, those who think religion has nothing to do with politics understand neither religion nor politics”.
Hanna Beech, on page 27 of The Time, volume 170, No.14 2007 says:
“For more than a week now, tens of thousands of Buddhist clerics have rallied across the country, their daily alms routes turned into paths of protest . . . Initially, Burma’s generals tried to extinguish the protests by arresting dozens of pro-democracy activists who had kick started the civil disobedience. But with the Buddhist clergy quickly taking over the leadership of the movement, on Wednesday 26th September the regime unleashed a violent crackdown on the protesters – a potentially dangerous move in this deeply devout nation. An exiled dissident living in Thailand says: “The monks are the only ones who really have the trust of the people. When they speak up, people listen”.
This piece makes a big impact and it is a must read if you look at the picture on page 27, it has been taken from above and shows thousands of the monks wearing their russet-red robes marching peacefully with their hands in prayer. The avenue is full of them and you can not see the end of the march. Some people are walking alongside, though the core and centre of the march are the monks.
Non-violence as a discipline, philosophy and way of life, focuses on confronting the unjust parts of society and not on the actors and demonstrations themselves. They aim at pointing out these injustices so that they are addressed by the ones who have the power to do so and who are, at the same time, responsible for the injustices.
In this context Rosalind Russell, reporting from Rangoon to The Independent, on the cover page of the publication on October 1st quotes a senior monk who said “We can not turn back now whether it takes a month, a year or more, we will not stop”, and then says “But in the now tranquil, tree-filled courtyard in central Rangoon, it is not of these atrocities that the monk, in his early sixties and wanting to remain anonymous, wants to speak. It is the atrocities which the Burmese people have suffered. The people are living under rulers busy enriching themselves with natural gas, timber, diamonds and rubies while spending less on health care per head than nearly other country in the earth”.
This is one of the monk’s prayers that they chant at the time that they need strength to keep going.
- - - - - - -
The situation in Burma
By Burma Action Ireland
On the 15th August this year, Burma's military government removed its price subsidy on fuel (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news, 15th August). The junta did this in an attempt to pander to the IMF, who had long been calling on the government to remove price subsidies (http://www.atimes.com, 24th August). Fuel prices, essential to Burma's people for cooking and travel, jumped by up to 500% overnight (ibid.). This shock to the country's economy was the spark for last week's massive anti-government protests, scenes of which were beamed around the world via the internet. The protests came to a head over the weekend with a violent crack-down by the junta, that is ongoing at present. Since Thursday night last (27th September), the junta has shut down internet access throughout the country, in an attempt to shield news of its violent repression from the world.
The price rises represented a remarkable inability of the ruling dictatorship to manage Burma's economy. The military regime, that has ruled since 1962, has been enriching itself at the expense of Burma's people throughout this time. The recent blundered handling of fuel price subsidies was typical of this chronic mismanagement. Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia when it emerged from colonial rule in 1947, today, it is one of the poorest in the world. Today in Burma, 32% of children under five years of age are underweight and 22% of the population have no access to clean water (UNDP). The United Nations ranks Burma just above Botswana in the Human Development Index, which measures the general welfare of a country's people.
This remarkable level of poverty has emerged despite the huge natural resource wealth of the country. The junta has been enriching itself through the sales these resources to India and China without sharing any of this wealth with the population at large. Burma Action Ireland is involved in a campaign against the development of the Shwe Gas Field, involving international companies and capital in the exploitation of Burmese people. The military junta is facilitating the development of these gas fields through the forced relocation of local populations (including burning villages) and the use of forced labour (slavery) (http://www.burmaactionireland.org). This is typical of the brutal methods with which the ruling generals have brutalised the Burmese people in order to enrich themselves.
Another example of the regime's brutality has been the Salween Dams project, involving the construction of dams along the Salween River. These dams will provide hydro-electric power for people outside Burma, as the junta plans to profit by selling the energy abroad. The forced relocation of ethnic minority people, in order to allow the project to progress, has precipitated large flows of refugees, both across the border into Thailand and inside Burma itself. The internally displaced people (IDPs) are continually at risk of further attacks by the Burmese military. Among the tactics used by the military against these people are rape, the burning of villages, the burning of crops, forced (slave) labour of men, women and children, landmining, forced (slave) labour for the Army and summary execution (without trial) (http://www.burmaactionireland.org). Burma Action Ireland is also involved in a campaign against this dam project.
Brief background and history of Burma
Burma, also known as Myanmar, is a country of over 50 million people in an area the size of France. There are eight major and a number of minor ethnic nationalities speaking over 100 dialects. Of these, Burman is the largest group, numbering 60% of the population, followed by Shan, Karen, Arakan, Mon, Chin, Kachin and Karenni. For much of its history, Burma was a collection of independent kingdoms.
The British colonised Burma in the 19th Century and ruled the region until 1947 when the country became a single state for the first time. A fragile democracy existed for fourteen years, from 1948-1962, until internal strife was exploited in a military coup, led by General Ne Win (1911-2002). This coup ushered in four decades of repression and international isolation. Since 1962 therefore, Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship.
Widespread unrest with the military regime led to massive protests in Burma, and made the 8 August 1988 famous in Burmese history. That day, forever known to the Burmese people as 8.8.88, saw mass protests by students, workers, teachers, farmers and monks, demonstrating on the streets of all the major towns and cities, demanding democracy (http://www.burmaactionireland.org). The junta reacted with extreme violence, killing an estimated 3000 people (http://observer.guardian.co.uk). This protest movement forced the regime to grant free elections.
These elections, which took place in 1990, saw the National League for Democracy party (NLD), led by Aung San Suu Kyi (daughter of General Aung San, an assassinated hero of the earlier anti-colonial movement), win 82% of the parliamentary seats. Despite this clear landslide victory, the NLD was forbidden from forming a government. Subsequently, its leadership was harassed, imprisoned and many were forced into exile. Aung San Suu Kyi has been prison or under house from 1989 to 1996 and from 2003 to present. Her release in 1996 came about as a result of considerable international pressure from pro-democracy groups around the world (www.burmaactionireland.org). Throughout this time Aung San Suu Kyi has been a powerful symbol of potential freedom for many of the Burmese people.
The Saffron Revolution (Current Protests)
The recent protests in Burma have in many respects mirrored the events of 1988, with the important difference that this time the world was watching. The internet allowed pictures and stories of the protests to be viewed around the world. On the 19th August, shortly after the fuel price rises, which were bringing people to starvation levels, some small civilian demonstrations began. Families, including women and children, walked through Rangoon to protest against the new prices.
Shortly thereafter, they were supported by groups of Buddhist monks, who are generally seen as the moral leaders of the Burmese people. At this stage, the monks discouraged the people from joining them, not wanting civilian casualties. The junta sent gangs of vigilantes to break up these demonstrations. In the follow-up to this, the monks, in solidarity with the people of Burma, marched in increasing numbers day after day, throughout cities and towns all over Burma.
Vast numbers of unarmed, totally peaceful monks and demonstrators took to the streets, demanding an end to military rule. They want the release of the democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and the restitution of democracy in Burma. The '88 Generation Students Group and the All Burma Monks Alliance released the following statement: “The entire people, led by monks, are staging a peaceful protest to be freed from the general crisis of politics, economics and society by reciting the Metta Sutra” (Guardian Newspaper, Thursday 27th August). The Metta Sutra is a buddhist discourse that reflects on the buddhist virtue of unconditional love and kindness.
It has been difficult to obtain accurate information about the scale of military repression and the scale of continuing protests since the junta cut all telephone and internet connections last Wednesday. What is known is that on Wednesday last the military began to respond to the protesters with bullets, tear gas and batons. On Wednesday night the military began to arrest and imprison the monks and to lock others inside their monasteries. In Rangoon, one protester estimated that the crowd was up to 100,000 strong during last week. When he returned to protest on Saturday most of the monks were nowhere to be seen and the crowd had shrunk to around 20,000. He reported that the army began to spray bullets into the crowd (http://www.guardian.co.uk 30th September).
Another eyewitness reported that dead protesters were being cremated by the army alongside some who were still alive (http://www.uscampaignforburma.org). Despite the military crackdown, sporadic protests are still taking place. Although it is hard to gauge, it has been estimated that 2000 arrests have been made and more than 200 people killed since the crackdown began. It has also been reported that thousands of monks have been taken from monasteries to temporary detention centres (http://www.guardian.co.uk).
Significantly, there have been reports of a split in the military junta, with rumours that the head of the army has turned against the ruler, General Than Shwe, and that he has sought a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. As yet these reports are unconfirmed.
China is the key player that is capable of influencing the junta in Burma. It has close trading ties with Burma, is the largest foreign investor in the country and relies heavily on Burmese natural gas exports. For years China has been propping up the military Junta and supplying military hardware to the country. It has consistently vetoed the inclusion of Burma on the United Nations Security Council agenda for discussion. India is another major influence in the region that is capable of influencing the regime, since it also trades heavily with the Junta and invests in the country. However, according to Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian last week, “It [India] seems more concerned about competing for influence (and energy contracts) with China than it is about the nature of the regime” (Guardian “Only Burma's Neighbours Can Stop its Dictators Beating up the Buddha”, 27 September).
International pressure has forced Burma to allow a UN envoy into the country. He is tasked with brokering a compromise in the Burma crisis and held talks with pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, but failed to gain an audience with the pivotal military leader, General Tan Shwe (http://www.guardian.co.uk, 01 October).
In addition, International pressure may have influenced the Chinese government to call for calm and restraint by the government in Burma. A statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, was 'very much concerned about the current situation' and assured world leaders that China wanted to see stability, and democracy restored in a peaceful manner (www.guardian.co.uk, 30 September). This shift in China's stance is perhaps the best hope for the democracy movement in Burma. China is particularly sensitive to international opinion at present, since it is hosting the Olympic Games next year, and does not want its reputation tarnished in advance of this. This is why Burma Action Ireland is currently seeking to lobby the Chinese government to use its influence to press the regime in Burma for dialogue with the NLD and the restoration of democracy in Burma.
Burma Action Ireland
Burma Action Ireland (BAI) was established in 1996 to raise awareness about the oppression of Burmese people under the dictatorship of the ruling Junta (under the name State Peace and Development Council ((SPDC)). The organisation is non-political, non-denominational and committed to non-violent means. BAI has been involved in on-going campaigns in support of democracy and human rights in Burma. The organisation is calling for immediate dialogue between the NLD, the ruling SPDC and the leaders of the ethnic minority groups in Burma.
BAI hopes that this dialogue will lead to a new constitution under a democratic government and bring about the end of internal conflicts in the country. It is seeking the release of all “prisoners of conscience” in Burma, including Aung San Suu Kyi , and the safe return of all refugees to their home with international protection. BAI provides support to groups and individuals within Burma and in exile who work for democracy and human rights there. In addition, BAI lobbies the Irish and other governments to raise the issue of Burma at international forums. The organisation is especially interested in promoting the inclusion of Burma on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council.
Last week, on the 25th September, a demonstration was held outside the Chinese embassy in Dublin, and a letter on behalf of BAI to the Chinese ambassador was refused by an embassy official. A petition to the Chinese government was signed by 1,300 people at a protest in solidarity with the people of Burma on Saturday (29th Sept.) in Dublin. This protest coincided with other protests around Europe at which thousands of people displayed solidarity with the people of Burma and chanted the Metta Sutra:
The Buddha's Words on Kindness (Metta Sutta)
This is what should be done
By one who is skilled in goodness,
And who knows the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech.
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied.
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways.
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skilful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: In gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings:
Radiating kindness over the entire world
Spreading upwards to the skies,
And downwards to the depths;
Outwards and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.